By Courtney Nice, CNN • Updated 4th May 2015
Tracking the northern lights can be difficult.
They’re elusive, impossible to see with the naked eye, and shooting through clouds and haze makes seeing them even more difficult.
Which is why binoculars, small cameras and plain old cell phones can help stargazers see the aurora borealis.
“It’s really a window to see,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Paul Buskirk, who’s leading a worldwide aurora mapping project.
Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun interact with neutral atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere.
It’s not always a show for the northern lights, but the more northern you go the higher the color temperatures increase, making for a brilliant show.
They’re most visible in the evening, when the Earth’s magnetic field is at its least intense and at the same time the sun is at its peak.
Techniques that worked
“In the ’70s and ’80s with the development of binoculars and lights for the night sky, it made it possible to see (auroras) in places you’d never had them before,” Buskirk said.
But there are limitations.
“Many auroras you can see if you’re lucky or very observant,” Buskirk said. “Auroras that bright and red tend to be really, really bright. The white, near-infrared auroras are pretty cool as well. But they tend to be hidden by sunlight or cloud cover.”
Every two years, officials with the Canadian Space Agency and the National Science Foundation of the U.S. team up to create a global map to help scientists track and monitor auroras.
“They do it in a randomized fashion so that they get a sense of how places respond to the aurora,” Buskirk said.
In 2013, the researchers analyzed 200 million photos taken by 50,000 volunteers.
Some photos were filtered for poor or unstable image quality, while others were filtered for the quality of the night sky.
The U.S. map includes detailed views of U.S. regions affected by the climate, such as Alaska and Canada, as well as the physical characteristics of each area, such as moon cycles, sea ice changes and differences in weather, including temperature, rain and humidity.
“The map is helping scientists to predict and forecast the aurora as they grow stronger,” said Amanda Smith, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who runs the Aurora Chasing Project, a Flickr group of scientists who track the aurora.
“These sorts of projects help people get a little more excited about the aurora,” Smith said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t see it,’ that their house or their planet is going to block it or it’s going to be too bright and too smoky for me, they can look at (the maps) and know they can see it, that they’re not alone.”